Arthur Griffith: a ‘moderate’ republican who launched Sinn Féin in 1905

Papers Griffith edited, when not suppressed by the British, inspired a generation

This article is part of the Irish Times Century project. For more on Ireland in 1922, click here.

Harry Boland and Michael Collins died on opposite sides in the Irish Civil War. Both admired Arthur Griffith. "Hasn't he made us all?" asked Boland. Collins reportedly called him "the father of us all".

Griffith launched Sinn Féin in 1905, not so much as a party but as a “movement” intended to unite advanced nationalists. The weekly papers that he edited, when not suppressed by the British, inspired a generation. He was elected president of Dáil Éireann in 1922. His collapse and death in August that year was a heavy blow to the new State.

Griffith was widely respected. He led the team that agreed a Treaty in London in 1921, and won the support of a majority of the Irish cabinet and Dáil Éireann for that deal.

When he died perhaps the highest praise came from Seán T. O'Kelly. O'Kelly, a future Fianna Fáil President of Ireland, was then interned in Kilmainham Jail by the Irish government as an anti-Treaty activist.

O’Kelly wrote to Griffith’s widow: “Future generations of Irish men and women shall draw inspiration [from] a truly patriotic son whose political philosophy so eloquently taught, and whose long years of toil and sacrifice brought the present generation of Irishmen from their knees to their feet, and rekindled in their hearts the almost extinct flame of liberty.”

O’Kelly later recalled a key meeting of top republicans in 1914, attended mainly by men who would be executed in 1916 but by Griffith too. “All the IRB people present were most anxious to hear what Arthur Griffith would say, and Griffith expressed full agreement with the policy of getting all the progressive Nationalist forces to work together to win complete independence before the end of the war [first World war ].”

New paper

They told Griffith that the IRB would make funds available for a new paper. This was to be his Nationality. Griffith agreed, subject to being briefed about important decisions between then and any future rising.

O’Kelly added, “Clarke and MacDermott promised to keep Griffith fully informed”.

But Griffith was kept out of the fighting in 1916, and so could continue his anti-imperialist writings.

Griffith was neither a pacifist nor a monarchist. His critics have used these and other misleading labels to diminish him. Griffith’s 1904 proposal for a dual monarchy, with separate parliaments for Ireland and Britain, was a strategic ploy at a time when many found his ideals farfetched. Few thought then that an independent state was achievable. He was ultimately a moderate republican.

A friend of James Connolly, Griffith was no socialist but argued hard for social justice. He worked with Maud Gonne against the Boer War, boosted the early career of W.B. Yeats in the United Irishman (which James Joyce said was "the only paper in Dublin worth reading") and gave women a platform on which to publish –something recognised in recent years. He could be single-minded and stubborn.

He was poor, long supporting his widowed mother and at least one sibling in rented rooms near Monto in central Dublin. His best friend died of typhoid. He rejected offers of better-paid journalism elsewhere, and could not afford to marry Molly Sheehan until 1910. Their two children were young when he died.

Even before replacing de Valera formally as its president in January 1922, he had acted as president of Dáil Éireann longer that Dev himself. For de Valera went to America for most of the War of Independence, just two months after taking the job, and left Griffith as his substitute. By 1922 Griffith had spent longer in jail than Dev.

Old ballads

Griffith liked to collect old ballads. A frequent swimmer in Dublin Bay, he also loved long rambles and cycles in the nearby hills with friends.

His legacy is awkward for the political parties. He was more radical economically than Fine Gael, was a reproach to Fianna Fáil for its founder's extremism in 1922, too moderate for future Sinn Féin and not socialist enough for leftists.

Many said he died of a broken heart, having long wished to avoid a split such as ruined Parnell’s ambitions for Ireland.

Griffith may not seem as heroic as his admirer Collins or other prominent gunmen in the Independence movement do. But his achievement was the Irish Free State.

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